Ancient Bento Meets Modern MyPlate

By Caroline Young Bearden, MS, RD, LD, RYT


Let’s face it. It’s easy for lunchtime to take a backseat in our busy lives. But chances are, the more nutritious it is, the better you will feel in the afternoon. And packing your own lunch (or your kid’s lunch) doesn’t have to be boring or expensive to be healthy and delicious.

What’s MyPlate?

To make it easy to build a healthy, nutrient-dense plate at every meal, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created MyPlate as a guide. Much like a Bento box, the USDA’s plate is divided into sections, including one for protein, one for grains, one for fruits and one for veggies, and a side serving of dairy. It’s a fabulous reminder to help you get your five food groups every time you chow down.[1]

What’s the deal with Bentos?

Bento Boxes have been part of the Japanese culture since at least the 14th century. When creating Bentos, the Japanese had limited food resources and therefore aimed to combine aesthetics with nutrition. It’s about taking simple, and sometimes mundane, ingredients and presenting them in a nourishing, beautiful way.[2]

Wouldn’t it be fun to practice the MyPlate concept using the ancient tradition of a Bento Box? We thought so.



The formula is simple: In a Bento box with three compartments, fill the large side with fruits and veggies, one with a protein and one with a grain. Or try a box with four compartments and fill each part with a grain, protein, fruit and veggie. Then, add a side of dairy to round out your meal.  

According to MyPlate, here’s what you should aim for at each meal to load up on all the essential nutrients your body and mind need to thrive, followed by some examples to get you started:

Daily Protein Needs

Ladies: 5 ounces

Gents: 6 ounces

Learn more about your protein needs here.


What does an ounce of protein look like?

1 Tbsp peanut butter, 1 egg, ¼ cup cooked beans, 1 ounce chicken (1 small chicken breast is about 3 ounces.)


Daily Grains Needs

Ladies: 5-6 ounces

Gents: 6-8 ounces


Shoot for half of all your grains to be whole grains (i.e. brown rice, 100% whole wheat bread).


What does an ounce of grains look like?

1 slice of bread, ½ English muffin, ½ cup oatmeal, ½ cup pasta


Daily Fruit & Veggie Needs


Fruit- 1.5-2 cups

Veggies- 2-2.5 cups


Fruit- 2 cups

Veggies: 2.5-3 cups


What does a 1 cup equivalent of fruits & veggies look like?

Fruit- 1 cup or 1 large banana, 1 small apple, 1 cup or 32 grapes, 1 cup berries

Veggies- 1 cup broccoli, 1 cup cooked spinach, 2 cups raw spinach, 1 cup mushrooms


Daily Dairy Needs

Ladies: 3 cups

Gents: 3 cups


What does a 1 cup equivalent of dairy look like?

1 cup milk, 1 cup or 8 oz. yogurt, 1/3 cup shredded cheese, 2 cups cottage cheese


Remember, if you’re hitting the gym or active more than 30 minutes per day, your needs might increase for each food group.

Ready to make your own nutrient-dense bento box?


Here are a few combos. to get you going:


PB & friends

Protein: 2 Tbsp. Peanut Butter

Grain: 1 Slice 100% whole wheat bread

Fruits & Veggies: 1 small apple, sliced, and 1 cup carrots & celery

Dairy: 1 cup milk


Peanut & veggie rice

Protein: ¼ cup Peanut sauce

Grain: 1/2 cup brown rice or Soba noodles

Veggies: 1 cup peppers and broccoli

Fruit & Dairy: 1 cup plain yogurt with ½ cup-1 cup orange slices


Snack Pack

Protein: 1 oz. (about 28) Roasted peanuts

Grain: Five 100% whole wheat crackers

Veggies: 1/2 cup sliced cucumber, ½ cup to 1 cup cauliflower, broccoli (or veggie of choice)

Fruit & Dairy: 1 to 2 cups cottage cheese with ½ cup-1 cup strawberries


Salad with all the fixings

Protein: 2-3 Tbsp. hummus mixed with 2-4 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar (depending on desired consistency for salad dressing)

Grain: 1.5-2 small whole wheat pitas or 1 medium whole wheat pita

Fruits & Veggies: 1 cup lettuce, ½ cup to 1 cup veggies of choice (i.e. tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots), ½ cup to 1 cup blueberries

Dairy: ¼ cup feta cheese


Tasty tacos

Protein: ½ cup black beans or 3 oz. (1 small breast) chicken, diced

Grain: 2-3 small corn tortillas

Veggies: 1 cup spinach (or your favorite greens), ½ cup peppers and 2 Tbsp. to ¼ cup salsa

Dairy: 1/3 cup Shredded cheese

[1] Choose MyPlate. Choose MyPlate. Accessed January 26, 2017.

[2] Beauty and the Bento Box. The New York Times. October 19, 2009. Accessed January 26, 2017.

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